Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. Stabilizing Climate: An Energy Efficiency Revolution: Zero-Carbon Buildings

The building sector is responsible for a large share of world electricity consumption and raw materials use. In the United States, buildings—commercial and residential—account for 72 percent of electricity use and 38 percent of CO2 emissions. Worldwide, building construction accounts for 40 percent of materials use. 29


Because buildings last for 50–100 years or longer, it is often assumed that cutting carbon emissions in the building sector is a long-term process. But that is not the case. An energy retrofit of an older inefficient building can cut energy use and energy bills by 20–50 percent. The next step, shifting entirely to carbon-free electricity, either generated onsite or purchased, to heat, cool, and light the building completes the job. Presto! A zero-carbon operating building. 30

The building construction and real estate industries are recognizing what an Australian firm, Davis Langdon, calls “the looming obsolescence of non-green buildings”—one that is driving a wave of reform in both construction and real estate. Further, Davis Langdon says, “going green is future-proofing your asset.” 31

Some countries are taking bold steps. Notable among them is Germany, which as of January 2009 requires that all new buildings either get at least 15 percent of space and water heating from renewable energy or dramatically improve energy efficiency. Government financial support is available for owners of both new and existing buildings for installing renewable energy systems or making efficiency improvements. In reality, once builders or home owners start to plan these installations, they will quickly see that in most cases it makes economic sense to go far beyond the minimal requirements. 32

There are already signs of progress in the United States. In February 2009, the U.S. Congress passed—and the President signed—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, legislation designed to stimulate the U.S. economy. Among other items, it provides for the weatherization of more than a million homes, beginning with an energy audit to identify the measures that would quickly reduce energy use. A second part calls for the weatherization and retrofitting of a large share of the nation’s stock of public housing. A third component is the greening of government buildings by making them more energy-efficient and, wherever possible, installing devices such as rooftop solar water and space heaters and rooftop solar electric arrays. The combination of these initiatives is intended to help build a vigorous new industry that would play an active role in raising U.S. energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. 33

In the private sector, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)—well known for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and rating program—heads the field. This voluntary program, which sets standards well above those of the U.S. government Energy Star building certification program, has four certification levels—certified, silver, gold, and platinum. A LEED-certified building must meet minimal standards in environmental quality, materials use, energy efficiency, and water efficiency. LEED-certified buildings are attractive to buyers because they have lower operating costs, higher lease rates, and typically happier, healthier occupants than traditional buildings do. 34

The LEED certification standards for construction of new buildings were issued in 2000. Any builder who wants a structure to be rated must request and pay for certification. In 2004 the USGBC also began certifying the interiors of commercial buildings and tenant improvements of existing buildings. And in 2007 it began issuing certification standards for home builders. 35

Looking at the LEED criteria provides insight into the many ways buildings can become more energy-efficient. The certification process for new buildings begins with site selection, and then moves on to energy efficiency, water efficiency, materials use, and indoor environmental quality. In site selection, points are awarded for proximity to public transport, such as subway, light rail, or bus lines. Beyond this, a higher rating depends on provision of bicycle racks and shower facilities for employees. New buildings must also maximize the exposure to daylight, with minimum daylight illumination for 75 percent of the occupied space. 36

With energy, exceeding the high level of efficiency required for basic certification earns additional points. Further points are awarded for the use of renewable energy, including rooftop solar cells to generate electricity, rooftop solar water and space heaters, and the purchase of green power. 37

Thus far LEED has certified 1,600 new buildings in the United States, with some 11,600 planned or under construction that have applied for certification. The commercial building space that has been certified or registered for certification approval totals 5 billion square feet of floor space, or some 115,000 acres (the equivalent of 115,000 football fields).38

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s office building for its 100 staff members near Annapolis, Maryland, was the first to earn a LEED platinum rating. Among its features are a ground-source heat pump for heating and cooling, a rooftop solar water heater, and sleekly designed composting toilets that produce a rich humus used to fertilize the landscape surrounding the building. 39

Toyota’s North American headquarters in Torrance, California, which houses 2,000 employees, has a LEED gold rating and is distinguished by a large solar-electric generating facility that provides much of its electricity. Waterless urinals and rainwater recycling enable it to operate with 94 percent less water than a conventionally designed building of the same size. Less water use also means less energy use. 40

The 54-story Bank of America tower in New York is the first large skyscraper expected to earn a platinum rating. It has its own co-generation power plant and collects rainwater, reuses waste water, and used recycled materials in construction. 41

A 60-story office building with a gold rating being built in Chicago will use river water to cool the building in summer, and the rooftop will be covered with plants to reduce runoff and heat loss. Energy-conserving measures will save the owner $800,000 a year in energy bills. The principal tenant, Kirkland and Ellis LLP, a Chicago-based law firm, insisted that the building be gold-certified and that this be incorporated into the lease. 42

The state of California commissioned Capital E, a green building consulting firm, to analyze the economics of 33 LEED-certified buildings in the state. The study concluded that certification raised construction costs by $4 per square foot but that because operating costs as well as employee absenteeism and turnover were lower and productivity was higher than in other buildings, the standard- and silver-certified buildings earned a profit over the first 20 years of $49 per square foot, and the gold- and platinum-certified buildings earned $67 per square foot. 43

In 2002 a global version of the USGBC, the World Green Building Council, was formed. As of spring 2009 it included Green Building Councils in 14 countries, including Brazil, India, and the United Arab Emirates. Eight other countries—ranging from Spain to Viet Nam—are working to meet the prerequisites for membership. Among the current members, India ranks second in certification after the United States, with 292 million square feet of LEED-certified floor space, followed by China (287 million) and Canada (257 million). 44

Beyond greening new buildings, there are numerous efforts to make older structures more efficient. In 2007, the Clinton Foundation announced an Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program, a project of the Clinton Climate Initiative. In cooperation with C40, a large-cities climate leadership group, this program brings together five of the world’s largest banks and four leading energy service companies to work with an initial group of 16 cities to retrofit buildings, reducing their energy use by 20–50 percent. Among the cities are some of the world’s largest: Bangkok, Berlin, Karachi, London, Mexico City, Mumbai, New York, Rome, and Tokyo. Each of the banks involved—ABN AMRO, Citi, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, and UBS—is committed to investing up to $1 billion in this effort, enough to easily double the current worldwide level of energy saving retrofits. 45

The energy service companies—Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Siemens, and Trane—committed not only to do the actual retrofitting but also to provide “performance guarantees,” thus ensuring that all the retrofits will be profitable. At the launch of this program, former President Bill Clinton pointed out that banks and energy service companies would make money, building owners would save money, and carbon emissions would fall. As of February 2009, the Clinton Climate Initiative had been involved with 250 retrofit projects and over 500 million square feet of floor space. 46

In April 2009, the owners of New York’s Empire State Building announced plans to retrofit the 2.6 million square feet of office space in the nearly 80-year-old 102-story building, thereby reducing its energy use by nearly 40 percent. The resulting energy savings of $4.4 million a year is expected to recover the retrofitting costs in three years. 47

Beyond these voluntary measures, the government-designed building codes, which set minimal standards for building energy efficiency, are highly effective. In the United States this has been dramatically demonstrated in differences between California and the country as a whole in housing energy efficiency. Between 1975 and 2002, residential energy use per person dropped 16 percent in the country as a whole. But in California, which has stringent building codes, it dropped by 40 percent. The bottom line is that there is an enormous potential for reducing energy use in buildings in the United States and, indeed, the world. 48

One firm believer in that potential is Edward Mazria, a climate-conscious architect from New Mexico. He has launched the 2030 Challenge. Its principal goal is for U.S. architects to be designing buildings in 2030 that use no fossil fuels. Mazria observes that the buildings sector is the leading source of carbon emissions, easily eclipsing transportation. Therefore, he says, “it’s the architects who hold the key to turning down the global thermostat.” To reach his goal, Mazria has organized a coalition of several organizations, including the American Institute of Architects, the USGBC, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. 49

Mazria also recognizes the need for faculty retraining in the country’s 124 architectural schools to “transform architecture from its mindless and passive reliance on fossil fuels to an architecture intimately linked to the natural world in which we live.” 50

Today’s architectural concepts and construction technologies enable architects to easily design new buildings with half the energy requirements of existing ones. Among the design technologies they can use are natural daylighting, rooftop solar-electric cells, rooftop solar water and space heaters, ultra insulation, natural ventilation, ground source heat pumps, glazed windows, waterless urinals, more-efficient lighting technologies, and motion sensors for lighting. Designing and constructing energy-efficient buildings, combined with a massive harnessing of renewable energy, makes it not only possible but also profitable for buildings to operate without fossil fuels. 51


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